HE news last month that McDonald’s in America has settled a suit by Hindus and vegetarians for glazing their French fries with beef extract — and settled it, if the reports are to be believed, with a $10 million payment for vegetarian causes — sent something of a frisson through me. Not merely because I am a vegetarian myself, but because we have come to the stage when people in America now feel entitled to expect McDonald’s, the cathedral of the beef burger, to serve them something that is a hundred per cent vegetarian.
When I came to the United States as a graduate student in 1975, I rapidly discovered that to be vegetarian was a crippling handicap. The only food I could eat at the hostel cafeterias (other than breakfast) was salads; there were the occasional tasteless boiled vegetables, meant to accompany the main dish, but to one accustomed to the flavours and seasonings of richly-varied Indian cuisine, these were barely edible. (I mean, how much salt and pepper can you sprinkle on a boiled potato to make it into dinner?) When I fled that campus to seek culinary solace outside, all I could find were pizzas and submarine sandwiches. There was only one Indian restaurant in Greater Boston, and as an impecunious student I couldn’t afford to go there more than once a semester. At the rare dinner parties I was invited to, the hostesses heaped carrots and peas on my plate (and if I was lucky, mashed potatoes). I lived on pizzas and subs for two years.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I discovered that vegetarianism was associated in most American minds with the counter-culture, a fad pursued only by pot-addled hippies in beads and sandals chanting “Om” between crunching on those leaves they weren’t smoking. I’d grown up in an India where vegetarianism was a mainstream option, where every hotel buffet or catered dinner had “veg” and “non-veg” tables to graze at. I never thought of myself as odd in any way. Suddenly, in America, just saying I was vegetarian meant being seen, at best, as some earnest, other-worldly fringe figure, probably full of dubiously utopian ideas about world peace and the environment. No one believed I didn’t even like animals — that I just didn’t want to chew on their corpses.
I know that isn’t a very pleasant way of putting it. I said that very sentence once to an American friend over lunch, and his eyes popped. He slowly lowered the burger he had been raising to his mouth, and said in a hollow voice, “I never thought of it that way.” He couldn’t finish his lunch that day, and couldn’t face meat for a week. To his wife’s relief, he got over that, but whenever I was asked thereafter why I was vegetarian, I stopped mentioning corpses. “Oh,” I always replied, “I just don’t want to bite into anything which in its natural living state might have bitten me back.”
Indian vegetarians have no idea how lucky they are to have vegetarian options everywhere, even in the buffets of five-star hotels. American vegetarians spent decades having to choose between isolation and starvation — if you wanted to enjoy people’s company you had largely to watch the meat, while if you wanted to enjoy your food you had to eat alone. How things have changed. A 2000 Zogby national poll, defining vegetarians as those who never eat meat, poultry or fish, established the vegetarian population of the U.S. at 2.5 per cent — about six and a half million Americans. A 1997 poll had found only one per cent, which suggests a trend, but that difference is within the statistical margin of error. Nonetheless, the evidence is mounting. A 1999 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group established that 57 per cent of the population “sometimes, often or always orders a vegetarian item when eating out”. And since trends are made by the young, it’s striking that six per cent of 18-to-29-year-old Americans never eat fish, fowl or meat.
In fact, what is striking about today’s America is that it’s become chic to shun meat. A celebrity-studded “Say No to Veal” dinner at New York’s Plaza Hotel was a sellout May 20. Organic vegetarian restaurants are, er, sprouting on both coasts. Supermarket shelves are tacked with cans of soup and beans labelled “vegetarian”. More and more natural foods companies are being established, and many are being taken over by major corporations, always quick to spot a business opportunity for the future. It doesn’t hurt that red meat is losing much of its allure these days. Eric Schlosser’s current bestseller Fast Food Nation describes, in gruesome detail, the process by which livestock becomes meat, in terms some readers say are enough to make them swear off burgers for life. As if that weren’t enough, the shadow
Source: The Hindu